Honduras is experiencing an influx of Anteaters, thanks to UC Irvine’s Global Brigades program, and needy communities are grateful.

In the town of Joyas de Carballo, students are working with locals to install eco-stoves, latrines, water storage units and concrete floors.

The low-cost projects help prevent respiratory diseases and other illnesses spread by poor hygiene, says Nazreena Abulkalam, a fourth-year student in public health sciences and international studies.

The stoves replace traditional wood-burning ones that emit harmful smoke particles and soot, reducing indoor air pollution. Concrete floors cut down on dust contamination and the transmission of Chagas disease by dirt-dwelling insects. Latrines allow for sanitary waste disposal, and water storage units provide sources of clean water.

“A lot of families sleep on dirt floors and don’t have access to toilets,” Abulkalam says. “Laying down concrete floors and building latrines are small but significant steps toward preventing Chagas and gastrointestinal illnesses.”

UCI students in the Global Brigades program travel to Honduras during summer, spring and winter breaks. A medical brigade was established on campus in 2007, with a dental brigade following in 2008 and public health, law, environmental and water brigades in 2010.

Global Brigades is the world’s largest student-led international health and sustainable development organization. Since 2005, more than 4,000 volunteers from 110 university chapters have assisted impoverished villages in Honduras and Panama.

The multidisciplinary program serves a host of health and wellness needs, says Ryan Alipio, founder of UCI’s public health brigade and a senior in criminology, law & society.

“Global Brigades takes a holistic approach to outreach that makes it unique among humanitarian organizations,” he says. “We provide mobile clinics, for example, but we also provide health education so communities can sustain themselves.”

Such education often involves performing skits to teach youngsters good hygiene practices, Abulkalam says.

“We always tell the children to wash their hands before eating and after playing soccer,” she says. “We also make sure they know not to eat undercooked meat or drink water that has not been boiled.”

Students work with families selected according to need and community participation. Adults receive health and sanitation training and, in turn, teach others.

“It’s not a whole bunch of Americans going down to Honduras for a week and then leaving,” Abulkalam says. “The community maintains the programs long after we’re gone.”

She fondly recalls the time she and other volunteers spent last spring break with the Flores family, consisting of parents, a grandfather and four children between 1 and 10 years old.

“On our last day, they taught us how to make tortillas and prepare fried plantains,” Abulkalam says. “This trip made me realize that I want to go into global health and that people in Honduras are happy and hopeful despite their difficult situation.”

Ellen Reibling, director of UCI’s Health Education Center and an adviser to the public health brigade, says: “It’s important that students gain an international perspective on public health issues, and this program highlights the desperate needs that exist in other countries.

“The students grow as much as the people they serve, and it helps them identify whether public health is a true passion.”